Comedy By Default: Following Ideas to Absurd Ends

04/15/2011 1:00 PM |

The impulse to establish a set of conventions and then follow them no matter the consequences is familiar from performance art, like in marathon pieces by Tehching Hsieh, Marina Abramovic or Tino Sehgal, and part of its intrigue derives from the mechanistic, arithmetic cruelty it sometimes engenders. Artists in Camel Space's current exhibition, Restore Defaults (through May 1), find absurd humor rather than potential agony in taking generative ideas to their self-canibalizing conclusions.

Curators Carl Gunhouse and Tom Marquet's title alludes to computer software's original settings and how they determine use. Appropriately, the piece facing the gallery entrance is a digital composition presented on the laptop with which it was performed. Nathan Davis developed a program that allows him to play and distort the noises made by his laptop—whirring fans and data-crunching processors—into abstract, stream-of-computer soundscapes. First performed in 2002, we watch Crawlspace's latest iteration on the computer with which it was played and recorded, a conceptual doubling or even tripling back that reveals the device's invisible innards through sound. Houston-based architecture studio wacdesignstudio's nearby "Obus Lofts Model" (2011) is similarly slick in its digitally augmented presentation, but emerges from a set of narrative rather than technological pre-conditions. The sleek S-shaped model, presented on a topographic desk also designed by the duo of Scott Cartwright and Jenny Lynn Weitz Amare-Cartwright, envisions a conventional luxury condo project tucked underneath Houston's freeway in a near-future of oil and water scarcity. (Visitors with smartphones can take a computer-generated tour through the post-apocalyptic-chic building, the rest of us can watch it here.)

Appropriately installed on the opposite side of the gallery, a video by Jenny Drumgoole and a collaborative installation by Hilary A. Baldwin and Mathew Ward diverge sharply from the slick presentations by Davis, wacstudios, and an adjacent photo series by Calvin Lee. Drumgoole, a Philadelphia-based video artist, earned internet fame when she submitted a series of outrageous videos to a cream cheese recipe competition chaired by celebrity chef Paula Deen. Here, in the final, epic installment, she and her mother meet Deen at a book signing, and though the handheld, Michael Moore-esque encounter is less grotesque than her earlier, more cream cheesy videos, Drumgoole maintains a crazed tone reminiscent of early Paul McCarthy. In meeting the symbolic head of the cream cheese competition—though Deen, who's ostensibly blogged about the videos, doesn't recognize her—the artist takes an enterprise that was deliciously absurd to begin with to its weirdly, perversely sentimental conclusion.

There's a kind of infantile delight and sense of possibility in her video that re-emerges in Baldwin and Ward's installation, which includes expressionist paintings, toy-like sculptures on the floor and hanging from a mobile (imagine a Calder-Brancusi collabo), and a mound of sand roughly the length of a human body. Their installation, "Toys" (2010), adheres the least strictly to the curatorial theme of seeing concepts through to their conclusions, but the playfully complex relationship between the mobile and piecemeal-hung paintings—parallels in form, color and hung shape—proves as rewarding to patient viewers as the rest of the work on view. Davis, Lee and wacdesignstudio in particular restore viewers' interest in quotidian objects and actions, while Drumgoole entertains with a carnivalesque distortion of the everyday.

(Images courtesy the artists, Camel Art Space)